The Durham Lights #1: Introduction December 15, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
The Durham Lights (aka the False Durham Lights or the Whitburn Lights) are a nice example of a few chance and unclear facts morphing out of control and spawning suspect Forteana. From 1864 to 1870, particularly though not exclusively in the winter, wrecks became common on the Whitburn Steel, some aptly named rocks, between Sunderland and Tynemouth in North East England. These wrecks were, in some cases, caused by a series of mysterious lights that appeared on the shore and that attracted the eyes of sea captains, who believed that they were the lights of Tynemouth lighthouse just to the north. The consequences were, to say the least, unfortunate. Several ships came ashore and several of those ships did not get off again, or at least not without local help. (David Clarke in the best article on the question talks of 160 ships being wrecked in that period, in fact those are the numbers that ran aground, not all paid the ultimate price, and many got off again without help… ) The local fishermen were roundly slandered in some parts of the press as wreckers and, given the lack of evidence for their involvement, they were understandably peeved. A commission was set up in the last days of 1865 and operated through early 1866. It set in train a series of investigations that were inconclusive but that ended with a lighthouse being built on Souter point, a lighthouse that opened in 1871. Wrecks did continue after the lighthouse had been built, in 1870, but at a much lower frequency and the mysterious lights became a memory.
They were then resurrected by, of all people, Charles Fort in The Book of the Damned (1919). It is always a pleasure to quote CF at length. We’ve run two paragraphs together here.
Every now and then in the English newspapers, in the middle of the nineteenth century, there is something about lights that were seen against the sky, but as if not far above land, oftenest upon the coast of Durham. They were mistaken for beacons by sailors. Wreck after wreck occurred. The fishermen were accused of displaying false lights and profiting by wreckage. The fishermen answered that mostly only old vessels, worthless except for insurance, were so wrecked. In 1866 (London Times, Jan. 9, 1866) popular excitement became intense. There was an investigation. Before a commission, headed by Admiral Collinson, testimony was taken. One witness described the light that had deceived him as ‘considerably elevated above ground.’ No conclusion was reached: the light were called ‘the mysterious lights.’ But whatever the ‘false lights of Durham’ may have been, they were unaffected by the investigation. In 1867, the Tyne Pilotage Board took the matter up. Opinion of the Mayor of Tyne – ‘a mysterious affair.’
Is it just Beach or do other readers hear the Scooby Doo theme when they read Fort? In any case, this passage could stand as a model for how CF worked. First, the inaccuracies: the lights were not ‘considerably elevated above ground’, but ‘considerably elevated above the land’ (a subtle but important difference) and the mayor of Tynburn was not actually the mayor but a Mr Hutchinson of Whitburn. Fort didn’t do details well, he was all about the bigger picture. Second, we have CF’s essential honesty: the fishermen’s claim that these were old ships does not particularly help his case that the lights were visitors from another world or cast offs from a Sargossa Sea in the sky etc etc. Third, we have slightly misleading insinuations: it is true that the light was said to be above the ground/land but it should be remembered that these were ships on the sea below an elevated village; this lights ceased to be an issue when the Souter lighthouse was built in 1870 – their disappearance was not random and in a sense the investigations and inquiries, which led to the lighthouse, did away with them. Fourth, we have that unmistakable Fortean style: ‘there is something about lights that were seen against the sky, but as if not far above land….’ Luxuriate or cringe depending on your writing values.
Mysteries published by Fort are usually guaranteed a certain immortality. But the Durham Lights never really took, imagine ivy withering off the trunk it is supposed to climb. As noted above, the only really worthwhile publication on them is David Clarke’s article in the Fortean Times (August 2010). The article represents the work of a first-class scholar and offers an accumulation of facts that would be a natural starting point for anyone interested in the lights. But DC ends with a little speculation, and who can blame him?
Descriptions of the ‘false lights’ of Durham resemble accounts of the Will-o’-the-Wisp, Jack o’ Lantern or ignis fatuus (‘foolish fire’) of folklore. This phenomenon, usually associated with boggy inland areas, was often described as a playful, moving light or group of lights, sometimes as a fixed flickering flame. Eyewitnesses who approach phantom lights frequently comment upon their evasive or intelligent behaviour. Sometimes they appear to recede into the distance or vanish like a mirage as attempts are made to capture or surround them. [reference in article] The sea pilots who testified before the court of inquiry in 1865–66 said the Durham lights behaved in a similar manner. They appeared most frequently in hazy or foggy weather and when mariners approached Whitburn Steel the lights vanished. As they steered away, the lights reappeared.
DC goes also talks about the potential for light distortion in misty weather, so don’t write him off as a will-o’-the-Wisp groupie. But there is a serious problem with this thesis and that is that time and time again the light is described as revolving. In fact, the light or lights caused so much damage precisely because it was mistaken as the Tynemouth lighthouse. Now for ‘revolving’ we could read ‘blinking’ and these events all took place in misty weather. But, even if we grant the existence of ‘intelligent lights’, the regular references to revolving is hardly reminiscent of witness accounts. In a future post – there will be three of which this is the first – Beach will set out some candidates for the lights of Durham: bearing in mind that men with dozens of years of experience of navigation failed to find any definite conclusions a century and a half ago. For now though: any other interesting Durham lights sources? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com